Tag Archives: mortgage rates

New Home Sales Tank – KBH Claims Its Numbers “Improved”

“We are confident we can produce further improvement in our results in the second half of this year” – KB Homes CEO in reference to its “returns-focused” growth model

“Returns-Focused Growth Model.” Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? KBH’s revenues dropped 7.3% YoY for Q2. It’s operating income plunged a healthy 28%. How’s that growth strategy working out for you, Jay?

Of course it produced a headline EPS “beat.” But this is because it implemented a full-blown deep-tissue body massage to GAAP accounting, including capitalizing costs that should have been expensed (interest expense and homebuilding expenses), it recognized a non-cash “income” in off-balance sheet JV’s (a suspiciously round $2.5 million) and slashed its arbitrarily determined book tax rate to 17% from 28%.

Except in certain areas where markets remain hot due to migration patterns (hundreds moving to Denver weekly – please stop), the housing market is contracting despite the lowest mortgage rates since late 2017. The Government has all but made it possible for a barely breathing corpse to take down a tax-payer guaranteed mortgage (there’s even several no-down-payment programs).

The homebuilder sentiment index (formally called the “Housing Market Index”) was released on Monday morning. It fell to an index level of 64 in June from 66 in May. Wall St’s finest were looking for a consensus 67. All three sub-indices declined: current sales conditions, buyer traffic and expectations for the next six months. Buyer traffic has been below 50 for two months in a row. This is despite more than a 1% decline in the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage during the last 7 months.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how homebuilders “feel” about the sales environment now or in six months, declining foot traffic translates into falling sales volume. The quote above reinforces my theory that the “pool” of potential homebuyers, especially first time buyers, who can qualify for a mortgage and afford the monthly cost of home ownership is drying up. Lower interest expense from lower mortgage rates somewhat offsets high prices relative to income. However, the general cost of home ownership other than debt service is rising beyond the spending budgets of many potential home owners. Those that can afford home ownership tend to look into the different types of homeowners insurance by simply insurance or something similar to make sure that they get the right cover for them and their situation.

A long-time subscriber contacted me and was curious about the divergence between my view of the housing market and Josh Steiner’s at Hedge Eye. Here’s my response: “I tried to follow Hedge Eye several years ago. It didn’t take me long to discard them into the rosecolored glasses/perma-bull bucket. Hope and optimism is easier to sell than doom, gloom and reality. Housing market perma-bulls don’t understand the extent to which easy credit has fueled the housing market since 2010. You can’t necessarily call it a “housing bull market” because the until sales level is not even remotely close to the previous peak in 2005. New single family home sales peaked at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 1.39 million in July 2005. The current SAAR is 626,000.

Furthermore, the Government “pulled forward” future demand when it began to lower the bar to qualify for a FNM/FRE mortgage. The demand pool Steiner probably thinks is out there for starter homes has mostly already bought OR can’t qualify. This is why that huge drop in the 10yr has not stimulated housing sales. The rate on a 30yr fixed mortgage has dropped over 100 basis points since November, yet housing sales have been declining. It would be interesting to know to what extent home sales would have have declined over the last few months if rates had not fallen over 1% since November.

Mortgage purchase applications dropped 1% this past week after a reported 4% decline the week before. Mortgage purchase applications have declined 8 of the last 10 weeks. This is despite the stunning drop in the 10yr Treasury yield and the related decline in mortgage rates. Furthermore, June is seasonally a peak month for home sales and thus mortgage purchase applications should be soaring.

KBH’s unit sales were flat but the average selling price plunged 8.5%. The Company had to resort to heavy discounting to move homes while it’s inventory continues to soar. The DJUSHB has been rising despite the fact that falling interest rates are not stimulating housing market activity. I’m certain that hedge fund algos have been programmed to buy homebuilders when the 10yr yield falls.However, at some point the fundamentals will take over and hedge fund algos will be reprogrammed to start selling.

The DJUSHB knifed through it’s 50 dma earlier this week. Despite the overall strength in the index this spring, I recommended two shorts in my Short Seller’s Journal that have been home runs. In mid-April, I recommended shorting Realogy (RLGY) at $12. It’s trading at $7 as I write this. I also recommended shorting HOV at $15. It’s trading at $6.94 today. Realogy is the best bellweather stock indicator for the housing sector because its the largest realtor services company. HOV is just a zombie company with far too much debt and will hit the wall eventually. That’s why indsiders dump their shares continuously.

There’s a lot downside profit opportunities in the housing sector. I review many of them in my Short Seller’s Journal. This includes ideas for using options and trading strategies. To learn more about this follow this link: Short Seller’s Journal information.

The Fed Is Running Out Of Bullets

“The latest University of Michigan consumer confidence report noted that its index tracking those who think it’s a good time to buy a home has fallen by a hefty eight points in the past two months even as mortgage rates have dropped.” – Danielle DiMartino Booth, “The Fed Can’t Help Housing Or Autos At This Point

I’m not the only analyst who has concluded that lower rates likely will not re-stimulate housing market activity. As I’ve argued in my Short Seller’s Journal, the “pool” of potential homebuyers who can qualify for a mortgage has greatly diminished. In fact, mortgage delinquencies are rising because many who stretched to buy a home in the past several years are struggling with the all-in cost of home ownership. Stagnant wages and the rising cost of necessities are largely the culprits.

“Despite lower mortgage rates, home prices remain somewhat high relative to incomes, which is particularly challenging for entry-level buyers.” – NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. That quote accompanied the NAHB’s release of its Housing Market Index, which used to be called the Homebuilder Sentiment Index because it’s a “how do you feel?” survey.

The Housing Market index fell to an index level of 64 in June from 66 in May. Wall St’s finest were looking for a consensus 67. All three sub-indices declined: current sales conditions, buyer traffic and expectations for the next six months. Buyer traffic has been below 50 for two months in a row. This is despite more than a 1% decline in the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage during the last 7 months.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how homebuilders “feel” about the sales environment now or in six months, declining foot traffic translates into decline sales volume. The quote above reinforces my theory that the “pool” of potential homebuyers, especially first-time buyers, who can qualify for a mortgage and afford the monthly cost of home ownership is drying up. Lower interest expense somewhat offsets high prices relative to income. However, the general cost of home ownership other than debt service is rising beyond the spending budgets of many potential home owners.

Quant-oriented perma-bulls, like Josh Steiner at Hedge Eye, understand the extent to which easy credit has fueled the housing market since 2010. You can’t necessarily call it a “housing bull market” because the until sales level is not even remotely close to the previous peak in 2005. New single family home sales peaked at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 1.39 million in July 2005. The current SAAR is 673,000.

Furthermore, the Government “pulled forward” future demand when it began to lower the bar to qualify for a FNM/FRE mortgage. The demand pool Steiner probably imagines is out there for starter homes has mostly already bought OR can’t qualify. This is why that huge drop in the 10yr has not stimulated housing sales.

The rate on a 30yr fixed mortgage has dropped over 100 basis points since November, yet housing sales have been declining. It would be interesting to know to what extent home sales would have have declined over the last few months if rates had not fallen over 1% in 7 months.  Just look at the big gap down in mortgage purchase applications reported this week despite a 10yr yield that has fallen relentlessly.

It doesn’t really matter what the Fed does today with the Fed Funds rate policy decision. To be sure, if the FOMC postures toward take rates to zero if necessary it might juice the stock market temporarily.  But it won’t take long for brains to take over from the algos and interpret the message that would be transmitted by the FOMC  as extraordinarily bearish.

Any attempt at holding off the economic catastrophe creeping into view would require massive money printing.  But given that some FOMC members consider a $3 trillion balance sheet to be “normalized,” I’m not sure at the margin to what degree more money printing  will save the economy.  Perhaps a Debt Jubilee for all households…

The above commentary includes excerpts from my Short Seller’s Journal, a weekly newsletter  ideas for those looking to short stocks – including options strategies – based on fundamental analysis. You can learn more or subscribe using this link:  Short Seller’s Journal information.

The Economy Continues To Deteriorate

Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, was on CNBC today asserting that the economy was expanding at an unprecedented rate.  Either Navarro is tragically ignorant or an egregious liar. Either way he looks like an idiot to those us who study the real numbers and understand the truth.

The Global Manufacturing PMI (Purchasing Managers Index) dropped to 50.4 – the lowest since July 2016. It’s been falling almost nonstop since mid-2017. The current period of decline is the longest in the 20-year history of the index. The index includes the purchase of inputs for the manufacturing of consumer goods, investment goods (capex material) and intermediate goods (semi-finished goods used as inputs for final goods).

The pace of decline for auto sales in China, Europe and the U.S. is the fastest in at least three decades excluding the great financial crisis time period. Visible evidence of the contracting global/domestic economy is Ford’s announcement that it’s cutting 10% of salaried (white collar) workforce, about 7,000 jobs, by the end of August.

The trade war is not the cause of U.S. economic weakness. If anything, it’s nothing more than an effort by the Trump Government to manufacture a scapegoat for the inevitably severe economic recession engulfing  the system. China’s exports to the U.S. were 5% of its GDP in 1995. By 2005 exports to the U.S. had risen to 9% of China’s GDP. Currently exports to the U.S. represent just 3% of China’s GDP.  These numbers show that the trade war between the U.S. and China is not the cause of global economic weakness.

Rather, the cause is the massive misapplication of capital from 10 years of over $21 trillion in money printing and debt issuance. This artificially over-stimulated economic activity. Now that the stimulus has worn off, the major economies – especially the U.S. and China – face the problem of servicing their debt load and the consequences of a decade of misallocated capital.

Bond guru, Jeffrey Gundlach, recently asserted in a webcast that “nominal GDP growth over the past five years would have been negative is U.S. public debt had not increased.” He went on to state that analysts and financial journalists “seem to not understand that the growth in the GDP it looks pretty good on the screen but is really based exclusively on debt – Government debt, also corporate debt and mortgage debt.” I have been saying this for quite some time because it’s pretty obvious to anyone who looks more deeply into the numbers beyond reciting the headline reports.

The Fed released Q1 household debt numbers two weeks ago. It showed that total household debt grew by $124 billion in the first quarter of 2019, boosted by increases in mortgage, auto and student loan balances. That increase in debt is not translating into economic growth. Part of the reason for the increase in mortgage debt balances is the proliferation of cash-out refinancings, which are now back to 2006-2008 levels (chart sourced from bubblesbottoms.blogspot.com):

Much of this cash-out refinancing is being used to pay off large credit card balances, which does not help stimulate economic spending but it does result in larger mortgage balances per household and lets the consumer “reset” its credit balance for more debt-based consumption. Again, this is similar to what the financial landscape looked like prior to the great financial crisis except it’s worse now.

The above commentary is an excerpt from last week’s Short Seller’s Journal.  In each issue I undress the economic propaganda and provide short ideas, including options plays.  This week I’m featuring a retail-based “unicorn” stock which burns more cash every quarter.  You can learn more about this newsletter here:    Short Seller’s Journal information

Horrifying Comments From A Freddie Mac Phd Economist

The housing market continues show contracting sales volume. April existing home sales fell 0.4% (SAAR – Seasonally Adjusted Annualized Rate) from March and 4.4% from last April. Existing home sales have dropped year-over-year 14 months in a row. This is the worst run since the housing crisis.

Obviously from a seasonal standpoint, if the market were healthy, home sales should be increasing month-to-month notwithstanding questionable statistical “adjustments” imposed on the data by the NAR. Furthermore, existing home sales are based on closings, which mean the report measures contracts that were signed in late February to late March/early April. during this period the 10yr Treasury rate fell from 2.8% to as low as 2.35%. But lower rates are not stimulating home sales in spite of rapidly rising inventory.

This is because the much of the remaining “pool” of potential home buyers can not afford the all-in cost of home ownership in spite of lower financing costs. Almost 30% of all mortgages that Fannie and Freddie underwrote and packed into bonds last year were for home buyers whose total debt payments were in excess of 43% of their gross (pre-tax) income. This metric – the borrower’s DTI – has nearly doubled since 2015. The mortgage/housing market is headed for a repeat of 2008.

New home sales also showed a drop from March. But the March number was curiously revised significantly higher – an upward revision to 723k SAAR. The number is so much higher than any number reported for any month in the last 12 months that it looks comical in the data series. John Williams (Shadowstats.com) referred to the report as “regular nonsense monthly volatility and lack of statistical significance.”   In fact, the jump in new home sales tabulated by the Government does not remotely correlate with mortgage purchase application data released by the Mortgage Bankers Association, which shows a decline in purchase applications that would correspond to April’s new home sales data

NOTE:  new home sales are based on contracts signed.  90% of all new homebuyers use a mortgage. Therefore declining purchase apps would translate into decline new home contract signings.  New homebuilders, for the most part, have been reporting declining new home orders (see Toll Brother’s latest earnings release from last Monday, for instance).

This brings me to an exchange between Texas real estate professional, Aaron Layman, and the deputy chief economist at Freddie Mac – Lawrence Kiefer. It seems that this Freddie Mac executive could not understand by lower interest rates were not translating into higher home sales. This economics Einstein was puzzled that the large pool of millennials were renting rather than buying. It’s pretty clear that this ivory tower dork is clueless about the amount of student debt held by the millennial demographic.  Kiefer suggested to Aaron that higher student debt levels could possibly be net positive for the housing market if it leads to higher incomes. The Twitter exchange between Aaron and Mr. Kiefer has left me speechless. You can read more here: Aaronlayman.com

Perhaps studying this chart might help Freddie Mac’s Mr. Kiefer better understand the basic problem:

In my weekly Short Seller’s Journal, I present detailed analysis of the housing market, pulling back the curtain of lies used by industry pimps to hide the truth. In addition, I provide specific short ideas along with suggestions for using options to short stocks synthetically. You can learn more about this newsletter here:  Short Seller’s Journal information

Actual Home Sales Are Tanking – Here’s Proof

The National Association of Realtors (NAR – existing home sales reports) and the Census Bureau (new home sales reports) report monthly sales on a “seasonally adjusted annualized rate” basis (SAAR). Notwithstanding the reliability – or lack thereof – of the “seasonal adjustments,” it would seem absurd to report monthly home sales on an annualized rate basis.

To the extent the NAR and Census Bureau’s data sausage-grinder is fed inaccurate data and thereby vomits a bad monthly “adjusted” number, annualizing that result magnifies the error. As it turns out, when sales are declining, the regression models used to “seasonally adjust” the data collected overstates actual sales (year over year monthly existing home sales have declined 13 months in a row).

A better measure of real homes sales is to look at actual numbers from companies in the business of pimping used homes or building and selling new homes. Realogy (RLGY) is the perfect laboratory rat for existing home sales. Realogy is the leading provider of real estate services in the U.S. under the brand names of Coldwell Banker, ERA, Sotheby’s, and a few others. Its shares plunged 15% on Thursday as losses from Q4 accelerated in Q1. Revenue declined 9% year-over-year vs a 6.2% in drop in Q4. The culprit was a 4% drop in transaction volume. The actual “same store sales” decline was likely larger because RLGY’s Q1 numbers are skewed by the acquisition and franchising of Corcoran, making the this quarter’s year/year comps irrelevant.

If any business reflects the true condition of the housing market, it’s RLGY. Existing home sales represent 90% of total home sales and RLGY is the largest real estate brokerage concern in the country. Yes, some select areas may still be showing “red embers” of activity. But most of the country is headed into what will ultimately be a severe housing recession. RLGY was down another 8.7% on Friday. It’s now down 33% since reporting its numbers last week.

RLGY may still be worth shorting here. It’s bleeding cash. It lost $135 million on an earnings before taxes basis (the income statement did not show operating income as line item). Its operations burned $103 million. The Company added an additional $100mm in debt, which now stands at $3.3 billion. The bond issue which it floated in Q4 had a coupon of 9.375% – a triple-C rated yield. Triple-c rated companies typically have a high probability of eventually going bankrupt. The tangible book value of the company – i.e. subtracting goodwill – is negative $1.6 billion. I wouldn’t touch RLGY’s bonds any more than I would touch TSLA’s or NFLX’s bonds. RLGY is on track to run out of cash by the end of September.

In the new home sales arena, Beazer (BZH) stock has plunged 18.4% since reporting its latest quarterly numbers on Friday. BZH’s closings were down over 10%, revenue down 4.6% and its gross margin plummeted (sales incentives to move inventory). Even adding back the write-down of California inventory, BZH’s net income was nearly cut in half and new orders were down close to 8% in the first 6 months vs 2018.

Note: it looks like homebuilders will begin the inventory write-down cycle again. It starts slowly and snowballs into an avalanche. So much for the “tight inventory” narrative that shoved down our gullet the NAR’s little con-artist, Larry Yun.

In my weekly Short Seller’s Journal, I present detailed analysis of the housing market, pulling back the curtain of lies used by industry pimps to hide the truth. In addition, I provide specific short ideas along with suggestions for using options to short stocks synthetically. You can learn more about this newsletter here:  Short Seller’s Journal information

Larry Kudlow Wants A 50 b.p. Cut In Fed Funds – Why?

The stock market has been rising relentlessly since Christmas, riding on a crest of increasingly bearish economic reports. Maybe the hedge fund algos are anticipating that the Fed will soon start cutting rates. Data indicates foreigners and retail investors are pulling cash from U.S. stocks. This for me implies that the market is being pushed higher by hedge fund computer algos reacting to any bullish words that appear in news headlines. For example, this week Trump and Kudlow have opportunistically dropped “optimistic” reports connected to trade war negotiations which trigger an instantaneous spike up in stock futures.

“U.S. economy continues to weaken more sharply and quickly than widely acknowledged” – John Williams, Shadowstats.com, Bulletin Endition #5

The real economy continues to deteriorate, both globally and in the U.S. At some point the stock market is going to “catch down” to this reality.

The graphic above shows Citigroup’s Economic Data Change index. It measures data releases relative to their 1-yr history. A positive reading means data releases have been stronger than their year average. A negative reading means data releases have been worse than their 1-yr average. The index has been negative since the spring of 2018 and is currently well south of -200, its worst level since 2009.

The Treasury yield curve inversion continued to steepen last week. It blows my mind that mainstream media and Wall Street analysts continue to advise that it’s different this time. I would advise heeding the message in this chart:

I’m not sure how any analyst who expects to be taken seriously can look at the graphic above and try to explain that an inverted yield curve this time around is irrelevant. As you can see, the last two times the Treasury curve inverted to an extreme degree, the stock bubbles began to collapse shortly thereafter.

The data in the chart above is two weeks old. The current inversion is now nearly as extreme as the previous two extreme inversions. This is not to suggest that the stock market will go off the cliff next week. There’s typically a time-lag between when the yield curve inverts and when the stock market reacts to the reality reflected in an inverted curve. Prior to the great financial crisis, the yield curve began to invert in the summer of 2006. However, before the tech bubble popped, the yield curve inversion coincided with the crash in the Nasdaq.

Another chart that I believe reflects some of the information conveyed by the inverted yield curve is this graphic from the Fed showing personal interest payments. Just like in 2000 and 2008, households once again have taken on an unmanageable level of debt service expense:

Obviously the chart above is highly correlated with stock market tops…

The Conference Board’s measure of consumer confidence dropped in March, with the Present Situation index plunging to an 11-month low. It was the biggest monthly drop in the Present Situation index since April 2008. What’s interesting about this drop in confidence is that, historically, there’s been an extraordinarily high correlation between the directional movement in the S&P 500 and consumer confidence. The move in the stock market over the last three months would have suggested that consumer confidence should be soaring.

The Cass Freight Index for February declined for the third straight month. Even the perma-bullish publishers of the Cass newsletter expressed that the index “is beginning to give us cause for concern.” The chart of the index has literally fallen off a cliff. Meanwhile, the cost of shipping continues to rise. So much for the “no inflation” narrative. The Cass Index is, in general, considered a useful economic indicator. Perhaps this is why Kudlow wants an immediate cut in the Fed Funds rate?

Recession Fears Fading? ROFLMAO

The news headlines explained the sudden jump in the S&P futures this morning by stating that “recession fears had faded.”  Just like that. Overnight.  I guess the fact that the housing starts report showed a 9% sequential drop in housing starts last month and and a year-over-year 10% plunge means that the housing market is no longer considered part of the economy.

That report was followed by a highly negative March consumer confidence report which included that largest drop in the “present situation” index since 2008.  What’s stunning about this report is that consumer confidence usually is highly correlated with the directional movement of the S&P 500. Obviously this would have suggested that consumer confidence should be soaring.

I explained to my Short Seller Journal subscribers that, once it became obvious the Fed would eventually have to start cutting rates and resuming QE, the stock market might sell-off. I think that’s what we saw on Friday. The “tell-tale” is the inversion in the Treasury yield curve. It’s now inverted out to 7 years when measured between the 1-yr and 7-yr rate. On Friday early the spread between the 3-month T-Bill and the 10-yr Treasury yield inverted. This has occurred on six occasions over the last 50 years. Each time an “officially declared” recession followed lasting an average of 311 days.

The yield curve inversion is a very powerful signal that economy is in far worse shape than any Fed or Government official is willing to admit. the Treasury yield curve “discounts” economic growth expectations. An upward sloping yield curve is the sign that the bond market expects healthy economic growth and potential price inflation. An inverted curve is just the opposite. If you hear or read any analysis that “it’s different this time,” please ignore it. It’s not different.

The inverted yield curve is broadcasting a recession. For many households, this country has been in a recession since 2008. That’s why debt levels have soared as easy access to credit has enabled 80% of American households to maintain their standard of living. The yield curve is telling us that credit availability will tighten considerably and the recession will hit the rest of us. This is what Friday’s stock market was about, notwithstanding the overtly obvious intervention to keep the S&P 500 above the 2800 level on Monday and today.

Without a doubt, through the “magic” of “seasonal adjustments” imposed on monthly data we might get some statistically generated economic reports which will be construed by the propagandists as showing “green shoots.” Run, run as far away as possible from this analysis. The average household has debt bulging from every orifice. In fact, the entire U.S. economic system is bursting at the seams from an 8-year debt binge. It’s not a question of “if” the economy will collapse, it’s more a matter of “when.”

The Stock Market Is Back In Idiot-Mode Again

I don’t know if it was the intent of the Fed, but Jerome Powell has managed to trigger a rush into stocks more frenzied than the one that engulfed the last days of the dot.com/techbubble. The vertical ascent since Christmas in the Dow/SPX is unprecedented on a percentage basis over an 8-week period of time. All sense of logic, sound analysis and fear of risk has disappeared. I don’t know how much longer this move will last, but it will likely be followed by a spectacular reversal.

What I can say with 100% certainty is that the stock market continues to dislocate from economic reality. This is a situation that will be corrected sooner or later, with the stock market re-pricing significantly lower to a level that better reflects the deterioration in both the global and U.S. economy.

A perfect example of this is housing starts, which were released today for December and showed an 11.2% drop from November. The better comparison is the 11% plunge from December 2017, as “seasonal [statistical] adjustments” are used to obfuscate the real data trends month to month. The year/year comp is somewhat “cleansed” from “seasonal” manipulation adjustments.

The mainstream media is already putting a positive spin the starts number by explaining that permits rose. A permit is not indicative of a future start. Homebuilders have been loading up on land, as tends to happen at the end of housing cycles. A permit is a cheap “option” to initiate a start if the market picks up. In fact, starts should be increasing right now. It takes 3-5 months to build the average priced new home. If homebuilders truly thought that the market was going to improve, housing starts should be increasing in November/December in anticipation of peak selling season in June.

Funny thing about the housing starts commentary.  Most homebuilders are sitting on a record level of inventory.  An example is LGI Homes, which just reported this morning.  LGI’s  year-end inventory soared 34% from year-end 2017.  The Company financed most of this with debt.  Home closings for 2018 were up 11% but decelerated during the year and new orders were down in January 2019 vs 2018.  Given the big jump in existing home inventory during the 2nd half of 2018, it’s safe to say that most homebuilders will likely try to work off existing inventory before starting new homes in excess of what is sold.

The housing market and all the related economic activity connected to building, selling, and financing home sales represents  20-25% of the GDP.  Inflating the money supply and dropping interest rates is not a valid method of stimulating economic activity when most households are over-burdened with debt, living paycheck to paycheck and depleting savings just to remain on the gerbil wheel.

Notwithstanding the propaganda coming from policy makers, Wall Street and the hand-puppet mainstream media, the economy is sinking.  The current spike in the stock market is nothing more than a rabid bear market rally of historic proportions. The stock market is not trading higher on fundamentals or hedge funds plowing investment capital back into the market (away from algo-based momentum trading).

According to data tracked by Goldman Sachs, hedge fund exposure to the stock market is well below levels registered during the last 18 months. As it turns out, corporate stock buybacks and short-covering are driving stocks higher. Buybacks YTD are tracking 91% higher than the same period last year. Short interest in the S&P 500 is now at the lowest level since 2007. The stocks that have performed the best since Christmas are the most heavily shorted stocks.

We’re not hearing anymore whining about the hedge fund computers dictating the direction of the market as was commonplace during the December sell-off. But when this market rolls over and rips in reverse, the Leon Cooperman’s of the world will be spilling tears all over the Wall Street Journal and CNBC complaining about hedge fund algos driving stocks lower. Funny thing, that…

The commentary above is partially excerpted from the latest Short Seller’s Journal. This is a weekly subscription service which analyzes economic data and trends in support of ideas for shorting market sectors and individual stocks, including ideas for using options. You can learn more about this here: Short Seller’s Journal information.

A Financial System Headed For A Collision With Debt

The retail sales report for December – delayed because of the Government shut-down – was released this morning. It showed the largest monthly drop since September 2009. Online sales plunged 3.9%, the steepest drop since November 2008. Not surprisingly, sporting goods/hobby/musical instruments/books plunged 4.9%. This is evidence that the average household has been forced to cut back discretionary spending to pay for food, shelter and debt service (mortgage, auto, credit card, student loans).

I had to laugh when Trump’s Cocaine Cowboy – masquerading as the Administration’s flagship “economist” – attributed the plunge in retail sales to a “glitch.” Yes, the “glitch” is that 7 million people are delinquent to seriously delinquent on their auto loan payments. I’d have to hazard a wild guess that these folks aren’t are not spending money on the latest i-Phone or a pair of high-end yoga pants.

Here’s the “glitch” to which Larry must be referring:

The chart above shows personal interest payments excluding mortgage debt. As you can see, the current non-mortgage personal interest burden is nearly 20% higher than it was just before the 2008 financial crisis. It’s roughly 75% higher than it was at the turn of the century. The middle class spending capacity is predicated on disposable income, savings, and borrowing capacity. Disposable income is shrinking, the savings rate is near an all-time low and many households are running out of capacity to support more household debt.

I found another “glitch” in the private sector sourced data, which is infinitely more reliable than the manipulated, propaganda-laced garbage spit out by Government agencies. The Conference Board’s measurement of consumer confidence plunged to 120.2 from 126.6 in January (December’s number was revised lower). Both the current and future expectations sub-indices plunged. Bond guru, Jeff Gundlach, commented that consumer future expectations relative to current conditions is a recessionary signal and this was one of the worst readings ever in that ratio.

This was the third straight month the index has declined after hitting 137.9 (an 18-yr high) in October. The 17.7 cumulative (12.8%) decline is the worst string of losses since October 2011 (back then the Fed was just finishing QE2 and prepping for QE3). The expectation for jobs was the largest contributor to the plunge in consumer confidence. Just 14.7% of the respondents are expecting more jobs in the next 6 months vs 22.7% in November. The 2-month drop in the Conference Board’s index was the steepest 2-month drop since 1968.

This report reflects a tapped-out consumer. It’s a great leading economic indicator because historically downturns in this report either coincide with a recession or occur a few months prior.

Further supporting my “glitch” thesis, mortgage purchase applications have dropped four weeks in row after a brief increase to start 2019. Last week purchase applications tanked 6% from the previous week. The previous week dropped 5% after two consecutive weeks of 2% drops. This plunge in mortgage purchase apps occurred as the 10yr Treasury rate – the benchmark rate for mortgage rates – fell to its lowest level in a year.

Previously we have been fed the fairy tale that housing sales were tanking because mortgage rates had climbed over the past year or that inventory was too low. Well, mortgage rates just dropped considerably since November and home sales are still declining. The inventory of existing and new homes is as high as it’s been in over a year. Why? Because of the rapidity with which number of households that can afford the cost of home ownership has diminished. The glitch is the record level of consumer debt.

The parabolic rise in stock prices since Christmas is nothing more than a bear market, short-covering squeeze triggered by direct official intervention in the markets in an attempt to prevent the stock market from collapsing. This is why Powell has reversed the Fed’s monetary policy stance more quickly than cock roaches scatter when the kitchen light is turned on. But when 7 million people are delinquent on their car loan and retail sales go straight off the cliff, we’re at the point at which stopping QT re-upping QE won’t work. The stock market will soon seek lower ground to catch down to reality. This “adjustment” in the stock market could occur more abruptly most expect.

As The Fed Reflates The Stock Bubble The Economy Crumbles

I get a kick out of these billionaires and centimillionaires, like Kyle Bass yesterday, who appear on financial television to look the viewer in the eye and tell them that economy is booming.  Kyle Bass doesn’t expect a mild recession until mid-2020. Hmmm – explain that rationale to the 78%+ households who are living paycheck to paycheck, bloated with a record level of debt and barely enough savings to cover a small emergency.

After dining on a lunch fit for Elizabethan royalty with Trump, Jerome Powell decided it was a good idea to make an attempt at reflating the stock bubble. After going vertical starting December 26th, the Dow had been moving sideways since January 18th, possibly getting ready to tip over. The FOMC took care of that with its policy directive on January 30th, two hours before the stock market closed. Notwithstanding the Fed’s efforts to reflate the stock bubble – or at least an attempt to prevent the stock market from succumbing to the gravity of deteriorating fundamentals – at some point the stock market is going to head south abruptly again. That might be the move that precipitates the renewal of money printing.

Contrary to the official propaganda the economy must be in far worse shape than can be gleaned from the publicly available data if the Fed is willing to stop nudging rates higher a quarter of a point at a time and hint at the possibility of more money printing “if needed.” Remember, the Fed has access to much more detailed and accurate data than is made available to the public, including Wall Street. The Fed sees something in the numbers that sent them retreating abruptly and quickly from any attempt to tighten monetary policy.

For me, this graphic conveys the economic reality as well as any economic report:

The chart above shows the Wall Street analyst consensus earnings growth rate for each quarter in 2019. Over the last three months, the analyst consensus EPS forecast has been reduced 8% to almost no earnings growth expected in Q1 2019. Keep in mind that analyst forecasts are based on management “guidance.” The nearest next quarter always has the sharpest pencil applied to projections because corporate CFO’s have most of the numbers that go into “guidance.” As you can see, earnings growth rate projections have deteriorated precipitously for all four quarters. The little “U” turn in Q4 is the obligatory “hockey stick” of optimism forecast.

Perhaps one of the best “grass roots” fundamental indicators is the mood of small businesses, considered the back-bone of the U.S. economy. After hitting a peak reading of 120 in 2018, the Small Business Confidence Index fell of a cliff in January to 95. The index is compiled by Vistage Worldwide, which compiles a monthly survey of 765 small businesses. Just 14% expect the economy to improve this year and 36% expect it to get worse. For the first time since the 2016 election, small businesses were more pessimistic about their own financial prospects than they were a year earlier, including plans for hiring and investment.

The Vistage measure of small business “confidence” was reinforced by the National Federation of Independent Businesses confidence index which plunged to its lowest level since Trump elected. It seems the “hope” that was infused into the American psyche and which drove the stock market to nose-bleed valuation levels starting in November 2016 has leaked out of the bubble. The Fed will not be able to replace that hot air with money printing.

I would argue that small businesses are a reflection of the sentiment and financial condition of the average household, as these businesses are typically locally-based service and retail businesses. The sharp drop in confidence in small businesses correlates with the sharp drop in the Conference Board’s consumer confidence numbers.

The negative economic data flowing from the private sector thus reflects a much different reality than is represented by the sharp rally in the stock market since Christmas and the general level of the stock market. At some point, the stock market will “catch down” to reality. This move will likely occur just as abruptly and quickly as the rally of the last 6 weeks.